Wild Wild Williston: Part III

My hometown of Williston, ND, is definitely in its own little bubble. The entire state of North Dakota pretty much is, but Williston and other boom towns are a breed of their own.

I haven’t lived in Williston for an extended period of time since the summer of 2009. A lot was changing even then in the steadily growing oil town, but it wasn’t even close to approaching the radical changes it’s undergone in the years since then. Changes that have gained national attention, happening right in my “boring” backyard. (If you haven’t checked out Part I and Part II, there’s some more information about Williston there.)

Williston High School's gymnasium, the Phil Jackson Field House (Williston is his hometown, too). Brings back memories of high school dances, basketball games, and graduation.

As a senior in high school in 2008, after working my way up the “corporate” ladder for the past three years at the local Subway restaurant, I was finally making $10.25 an hour as a supervisor slinging sandwiches. (Yay alliteration!) When I tell my friends this, even friends from North Dakota, they’re usually pretty amazed I got that kind of pay working at a Subway restaurant. (And, I’ll admit, I miss it a lot.)

But things are even vastly different since then. My 16 year-old brother just got his first job this summer working on an asphalt crew. The team consists mostly of females, because all the older guys who would normally be working construction are working on the oil rigs. His starting wage is $15 an hour. I’ve never made that much in my life, and I’m jealous. When I first went into sandwich slavery, I was making a mere $5.50 an hour, and happy with it.

But why do manual labor for 16 hours a day under the hot sun for $15 an hour when you could work in a fast food restaurant for the same wages?

This ad was in Williston's local classified newspaper, "The Shopper," the last week in May.

And the $10.25 an hour at Subway that I’d worked through blood, sweat, and tears for? Yeah.


But that’s what employers need to do to entice help in Williston — A place where there are tons of jobs, tons of people, no place to put them all, and very little for them to do recreationally.  After all, if you or your significant other could be making more than people with college degrees, especially in this economy, why wouldn’t you?

Exactly. Which is why a lot of people from all across the country are doing that.

But finding employees is only half the battle for non-oilfield employers in Williston. Keeping good employees is a big problem, too. People leave jobs in a heartbeat with no warning in favor of better opportunities … or sometimes just in favor of sitting at home. All the restaurants and stores are so busy there, keeping up with the demand gets to be a lot for anyone. (It was even crazy when I worked at Subway before the peak of the oil boom — Our restaurant was considered a “high-volume” store among other Subways nationwide.) For this reason, some employers are taking steps to nip that situation in the bud:

This ad was in last week's issue of "The Shopper." The good part is kind of small in this screenshot, but it says, "Do not apply if you're always sick, late, untrustworthy, can't work weekends, lazy, not dependable, or you complain about everything!"

Housing in Williston, when available, is priced in relation to the competitive wages. I think it’s kind of a chicken and egg situation, but whether the housing prices are in response to the amount people are getting paid, or the amount people getting paid is compensating for the rise in housing prices, they’re definitely both high. Like, you could rent an apartment in New York City for the price of apartments in Williston.

Granted, a lot of apartments in town are certainly much more affordable, they’re definitely more expensive than they used to be, and more difficult to come by.

I was glad to see, though, that while I was perusing The Shopper, some things haven’t changed.

Well, I guess I don’t know if I can say “glad.” The camouflage tux was always something my dates threatened me with during prom season.


What the heck are you guys searching?

I find this funny. You might too. (P.S. Thanks for not telling me about the random “y” that was dangling at the end of that sentence for like a month now! I LOATHE typos, so tell me about them immediately. Twenty lashes with a wet noodle for me, as my dreaded first grade teacher would say.) Even on a slow … “thought” day (Like today. I guess it can’t be called a slow news day on this kind of blog.) I’m surprised by the hits I sometimes get on my blog. WordPress has this awesome little feature that tells you what search terms your readers typed in to get to your blog. They never cease to amaze me. Here are a few:

  • “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” appears almost daily. Here are a few uber specific Gypsy search terms that make me laugh:
    Pictures of gypsy girls in short skirts looking for future husbands on TLC
    My big fat gypsy wedding show contact
    My big fat gypsy wedding kaitli — No typo.’
    The gypsies tent inn
    My big fat gypsy secrets
    I’m big fat gypsy wedding
  • Some variation of “cankles” is also a daily one
    Celebrities with cankles
    What are cankles
    Why have I got no ankles
    Cankle liposuction
    Cankles deutsch
    And, my personal favorite: Hottest cankles in town
  • A slew of North Dakota search terms
    North Dakota nice
    Show pictures of Williston ND in a snow storm
    Are there any fish in Spring Lake Park Williston ND
    North Dakota — it doesn’t exist (Ha ha.)
    Has Williston ND ever flooded?
    Williston city North Dakota oil June 2011 boom New York (What was this person looking for?!?)
    A child forced to grow up too fast North Dakota
    Is a Menards moving into Williston ND
  • Stuff I’m assuming got people to the iPad story
    iTunes license agreement kidney
    Human CentiPad agreement mouth
    Who wants to buy my kidney?
    What kind of saying is I’d sell my kidney?
  • These ones are in a category of their own: WTF?
    Mischa Barton obesa
    Lap dance
    Inappropriate pictures of Miley Cyrus (multiple times)
    My name is enough
    Gender neutral baby car seat
    Crab pole dance
    Mischa Barton cellulitis (Um, what? And why so much hate on Mischa??)
    A fat Mexican girl with big boobs
    No little brother  for kids can’t go in my room kids
    Dresses for fat teens

I’m not hating — However you got here, I’m glad you’re here and love you for reading. But you’ve got to admit, this search data is pretty entertaining. Hope you got a kick out of it, too.

Wild Wild Williston: Part II

It’s obvious the once-forgotten town of Williston, a dusty little placed nestled in North Dakota’s back pocket, is undergoing some major changes spurred from the oil boom. Finding housing to accommodate the influx of residents is at an unprecedented high. But that’s not the only thing changing.

Williston's slogan, referring to the Bakken Oil Formation that was discovered in the region. This can be seen emblazoned on bumper stickers, hats, and other apparel.

Williston’s like most other small towns in North Dakota. Everyone knows your business before you even do. Comparatively, Williston is considered a “city” in North Dakota, with a population of around 13,000 before the oil boom. (Williston’s not expected to stop growing anytime soon, as space for another 4,500 people in man camps is being planned.) Still, somehow everyone either knows everyone or knows of everyone through the grapevine. You know that whole six degrees of separation thing? Williston natives probably have about one or two degrees of separation from one another, at a generous estimate.

Obviously this is a little dated, but you get the concept.

Still, Williston’s always seemed a little behind the curve. Up until a few years ago, the few radio stations that didn’t play country almost exclusively played music from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. Because of this, I know every word to songs like “Diamond Girl” by Seals and Crofts and “Missin’ You” by John Waite. (Most non-country stations have since shifted to Rock or Top 40 formats.) For these reasons, in the few years since I moved away, I’m happy to see the Williston Herald, the local newspaper, and the Convention and Visitors Bureau get online — even on Facebook.


More and more social media sites are being put into place to get people familiar with the city, since many who come from around the nation had no idea Williston even existed until they heard about the job availability. WillistonWire is an e-Newsletter that compiles all Williston-related news from surrounding news outlets. One of my friends has recently created a forum for Willistonites called Williston Basin Forum to gather and weigh in on issues that affect them.

Facebook pages surrounding Williston have been popping up for a while. They never seem to pick up much speed, but one in particular caught my eye. Called Williston Rumor Mill, it definitely perpetuates the online component of the city’s physical rumor mill that churns daily. Some people take it really seriously, while others post outlandish joking rumors. Regardless, it’s updated often by users and has 912 fans (and counting). Taking a look at the page, it’s pretty much the Facebook version of my high school experience. And I think that’s what makes it so interesting.

Hm, never noticed that on my last trip to Williston.

While I’m sure social media has been a great way for people new to the area to make connections, it’s definitely got a creepy factor. Growing up, Williston was never really a haven for creeps. From the time we were about eight until we got our drivers’ licenses, my best friends and I would ride our bikes throughout town all day, going to stores and restaurants without having to worry about traffic, let alone creepers.

But today, girls my age who still live in town often say how many inappropriate comments they get from guys of all ages, even just going to Wal-Mart (the only major store in town). Even six hours away, I periodically get Facebook messages from guys moving to the Williston area for oil work, sometimes asking for me to be their “friend” and “show them around,” and sometimes just saying things like, “Yo hun I’m moving to Williston! What’s yo number so I can get atchu?!” Creepers.

"Do the creep!"

The times, they are a-changing in Williston and surrounding areas, and it’s interesting to hear about its evolution from friends and family and see the transformation myself when I make my seldom visits.

What do you think about the changes happening in Williston, whether you’re from there or not? What have your experiences been?

Oh, Those Summer Nights

To me, it’s a summer tradition. Summer nights just wouldn’t be the same without being crammed into the bed of a pickup with friends eating popcorn and battling mosquitoes. Growing up in Williston, ND, I had the luxury of going to a drive-in theater whenever I felt like it. Williston boasts the last remaining drive-in theater in North Dakota, the Lake Park Drive-In. It gets its namesake for nearby Spring Lake Park, a popular outdoor recreation location north of Williston.

Spring Lake Park provides Willistonites with a walking and biking trail, frisbee golf course, two "lakes" for canoeing and fishing, a dog park, a playground, picnic areas, and more.

After moving to Grand Forks for college, the lack of a drive-in theater has left a noticeable gap in my summer evenings. It just doesn’t feel the same not to pack up on a whim, sneak half of the group in hiding under blankets in the backseat, and grab an overpriced “Chilly Dilly Pickle” from the snack bar.

Driving into town from my house on the north end of Williston, I passed the Lake Park Drive-In daily. I didn't take this picture, but it's a familiar sight.

As a little kid, I called the Lake Park Drive-In “The Popcorn Dances,” because of the short cartoon the theater played between the double-feature. Looking back in my childhood diary, my excitement was evident every time the drive-in opened for the summer and every time my family got the treat of popping popcorn, packing up in our pajamas, and heading to the drive-in for the night.

In recent years, with the influx of oil traffic in Williston, rumors have raged that the Lake Park Drive-In will close for good in favor of selling the land to the oil field. Facebook groups sprung up in protest. Just this summer, rumor had it that the Lake Park Drive-In would be demolished and a new 12-plex would be built in its place. Thankfully, none of these rumors have come to fruition — The drive-in is open for business for yet another summer this season. Because it’s such a big part of summer tradition and memories for the residents of Williston, and because it’s a piece of history and the last remaining theater of its kind in the state, it would be an absolute shame to lose it to the oil field.

The view from the inside

If you can’t make it to the Lake Park Drive-In, there are still a few drive-in theaters in surrounding states. Minnesota has six remaining drive-in theaters, including the Sky-Vu Drive In — the closest drive-in theater to my current residence of Grand Forks — located in Warren, MN. South Dakota also has six drive-in theaters. Montana has three drive-in theaters clinging to life, located in Billings, Plentywood, and Silverbow.

If you’ve never been to a drive-in theater, you’ve really got to find your nearest one, pack up your friends or family, and go at least once. The memories I have of my experience at the Lake Park Drive-In are treasured, dating all the way from my early childhood to my last summer at home before heading off to college.

Things North Dakotans Like

I never realized how marketable an upbringing from North Dakota can be. Until very recently, I thought that my whole life, no matter where I go, I’d be plagued with having to say, “I’m from North Dakota,” and getting the looks of disbelief and the 20 questions:

“So it does exist!”

“Oh, so you’re from Canada?”

“Oh my gosh! Say “roof” again! Haha! Now say “flag” or “bag.” Haha!” (I still don’t hear that I say “flag” and words that rhyme with it weirdly.)

“What’s it like to live without electricity?”

Or just plain:
“Oh wow, you’re far from home.”

We exist!

I got my first taste of the world outside the Midwest when I was 16 — I took a 36 hour bus trip to Atlanta, GA, for the National Catholic Youth Conference. (Mhm. Go ahead.) I got all of the questions I mentioned earlier and more. I was honestly really embarrassed by it. I even began working on reducing my “Nort’ Dakohhtan” accent. (By the way, I’m fascinated that link exists.) I distinctly remember starting to dream about living in New York City (but I wasn’t opposed to the idea of any big city outside of the Midwest) at age 8. At age 16, I still thought I’d have to get rid of all traces of my roots (pronounced rhyming with “foot,” the way it should be) to make it anywhere else.

But now, I totally embrace my background. Sure, I still can’t wait to move somewhere “big” and see what the world has to offer me. But come on, what’s a better conversation starter anywhere else in the country than telling someone you’re from North Dakota? My boyfriend is originally from the East coast (first Pennsylvania, then Maryland, now his family is living in Virginia) and on my first visit to his family’s house, his mom used my background to our advantage. During the long wait for a table at a restaurant, she mentioned I had come all the way from North Dakota to visit. Here’s something I’ve learned: People who are not from North Dakota are generally fascinated to meet someone who is. It’s like we’re mythical creatures or something. We talked with the hostess briefly about what the state is like, and I answered her questions about it. It may have just been that the conversation made time pass more quickly, but it seemed we were seated shortly after.

Ha. Ha.

This wasn’t the only time something like this has happened. I recently learned that a North Dakota background is not a bad thing to bring up when applying to universities or jobs out of state. So, in an effort to bridge the gap between the “North Dakota doesn’t exist” jokes (Very funny. Can we be any more unoriginal?) and the roughly 640,000 North Dakotans who feel like the rest of the country wouldn’t care if we didn’t exist, here are a few things you can bring up on either side of the issue to get the conversation started.

Things North Dakotans Like:

  1. We like talking about North Dakota.Especially in places where North Dakota is nonexistent in the minds of the residents. The first time I ever saw the ocean, I was 19. I was wading and splashing and getting knocked over by waves alongside little kids at the beach. I was silently competing with a five year-old to dig sand fiddlers from the shoreline. Nearby sunbathers must have thought I was just a weirdo, but if I had yelled out, “It’s ok, I’m from North Dakota!” all would have been understood. Striking up conversations with vendors on the boardwalk, it seemed they thought I was from another planet, but in a good way. They had a lot to ask about and say when they found out where I was from.
    Oh, yes. There’s documentation of my first experience with the ocean. Notice the little boy effortlessly bobbing in the waves in the background. Ugh.
  2. Our cuisine. You may not have realized North Dakota has a cuisine. I didn’t fully realize this either until I was having a conversation with a few professors of mine.
    Hotdish: We like hotdish. (You may know this as a “casserole” in other parts of the country.) Hotdish is funny and delicious simultaneously. Even the word alone can provoke giggles. There is, however, a strong divide between those who support corn in their hotdish and those who despise it. Peas, however, are almost always taboo.

    Gooey tater-totty goodness

    Pie: North Dakotans have an appreciation for a good slice of pie. We often make pies out of ingredients that sound like they’re made up: juneberries, chokecherries, rhubarb, buffalo berries, and crab apples, to name a few. (Fun fact: The chokecherry is North Dakota’s state fruit, thanks to some kids from Williston, ND.)
    “Ethnic” Food: Ethnic for us is German and Norwegian. Some desserts we like are krumkake (kroom-cacka – kind of like the cone part of an ice cream cone), lefse (potato flatbread smothered with butter and sugar), and my personal favorite, kuchen (koo-kin – the German word for cake — There are a lot of varieties, but the link shows one closest to my Grandma’s neighbor’s secret recipe, which is to die for).

    We’ve also been known to love knoefla soup, (nef-la, not ka-na-ful-la, as I’ve sometimes heard it pronounced) a creamy potato soup with dumplings.

    A controversial part of North Dakotan cuisine is lutefisk — Cod soaked in lye for several days until it becomes gelatinous in texture. Williston, ND’s, First Lutheran Church holds one of the largest lutefisk dinners in the country every February. (I’ve never been one to partake.)

    Melts in your mouth?

  3. Nice weather. And talking about the weather every day, good or bad, for that matter. Don’t assume that just because we live here we all love arctic temperatures. The summer is just so hot and full of storms that it distracts us from how terrible the winters are. Then it starts snowing again in October, and we wonder why we live here. But we also take pride in our hardiness.

    This is what we do for entertainment at UND -- It's on several graduation bucket lists.

  4. County fairs: We don’t have amusement parks around here. (Can you imagine why, with our winters?) I think the closest one is either Nickelodeon Universe at the Mall of America or Valleyfair in Shakopee, MN, which are both anywhere from 4-12 hours away, depending on where in North Dakota you live. So, as kids, we lived for the county fair in the summer. I can’t believe I ever trusted the rides they put up, sprayed puke off of, and took down in the course of 3 or 4 days, but it was something my friends and I looked forward to all year. I think parents like them, too, because it gives their kids something to do in the summer besides sit in front of the TV and drive them crazy.

    Attractions at the fair I attended yearly growing up

  5. Hunting and fishing: Kind of a given. The weekend of deer season opener especially is a statewide holiday. The school system used to plan “fall breaks” around it, so kids would have an extra day to go hunting. Kids in North Dakota have been around guns since they’re small. (My younger brother would tag along on hunts when he was 4 or 5.) Yet, there’s never been a school shooting in the state. Kids here are raised to respect the danger of firearms.

    My boyfriend, Chris, my dad, and my brother, Tanner, with my dad's buck this past season. (The sun was in their eyes -- Not the most flattering picture.)

Bringing up any of these things will ensure an enriching conversation between North Dakotans and non-North Dakotans. I’m sure there are countless more things we North Dakotans like, and maybe I’ll talk about those later on, but this will do for now. Anything particular you’d add?

Four and a half hours and a tank of gas

I just made the absolutely dreadful drive across North Dakota from my hometown of Williston to my current residence in Grand Forks. It’s supposed to take 5 or 6 hours, but I made it in four and a half on 3/4 of a tank of gas. I know that’s not something anyone particularly cares about, but it gives you some idea of the sheer boredom this drive causes. That achievement is the biggest excitement I can get out of that many hours in a car on the same highway with only the company of my boyfriend’s dog and nothing to look at but flat prairie as far as the horizon. It’s a beast of a drive — Not for the faint of heart.

*Dun dun dun (ominous music)* I didn't take this, but I have pictures that are exactly the same.

The drive is generally one of those times in life that you wish you could fast forward through. I faintly remembered reading an article once about a writer from a big city (I think he may have been from the New York Times) who had to drive across North Dakota and considered the solitude to be almost a religious experience from the chance for pure introspection.

…Yeah. My drive usually consists of pumping myself full of as much caffeine as possible and singing terribly to my iPod to keep myself awake. (In all honesty, it was a really great article — I can’t seem to find it right now, otherwise I’d link to it.)

I usually spend the entire time thinking about what I could be doing if I wasn’t struggling to stay awake and keep the death machine between the painted lines. So, instinctively, for the first 30 miles, I started making a schedule in my head of everything I needed to do as soon as I got out of the car. But soon, I started to notice the countless fields and ditches that were flooded. I don’t delight in natural disasters, but I did find it relieving to have something new to look at on the uber familiar ride. (I can tell where I am by “landmarks” like old, abandoned tractors and the occasional hill.) Like my dad, those farmers won’t be able to put in a crop this season. (Yeah, I’m a farmer’s daughter, too. Can I fulfill anymore stereotypes?) Although it was shocking and saddening,  I realized that there are some things we can’t control — like a long, boring drive you’ve taken far too many times.


That's suppoesed to be prairie as far as the horizon. This area four miles west of Towner, ND, was one of the most severely flooded areas visible from the road.

As I surveyed the flooded land, spanning most of the Highway 2 area in northern North Dakota, I took the time to relax for once. I thought about things I like to think about instead of worrying about things I can’t control. I listened to my iPod for more than just background music while studying. I belted out everything from Bon Iver to Backstreet Boys.

I usually hate the inherent isolation of North Dakota — As if the state isn’t isolated enough from the outside world, you have to drive hours to get to the next major city. But I think I finally learned how to use that time wisely. I’ve spent most of my time being a miserable ball of stress lately (more so than usual even), so it seems like the drive I usually dread was just what I needed.

Wild Wild Williston: Part I

Every time I make a visit to my hometown of Williston, ND, dramatic changes have taken place in the once sleepy and static western North Dakota town. I think if I posted one entry about everything that needs to be said about Williston, it would be a novel. So, I’ll post a little about it here and there.

About 20 miles keeps us from being considered Montanans. Although, much of the rest of the country probably mistakenly considers us Canadians anyway.

Growing up, most people I met from other cities in North Dakota associated Williston with the meth problem that raged in the area throughout my childhood. At its peak, meth labs were being busted in homes, cars, and hotel rooms several times a month — perhaps even weekly. I remember one time, back when it was acceptable to let your children sell the products their schools made them peddle door to door, my friends and I knocked on the door to what I would now consider a shady-looking house. Despite the lack of a response, we heard definite movement inside, so we waited on the doorstep for a few minutes before we heard a car spinning out and speeding away from the back of the house. Chances are, we were on the doorstep of a dealer or a meth lab.

This just made me laugh.

Now, at least it seems that a majority of the meth has crawled back into whichever hole it came from. Today, it’s all about oil. Depending on who you talk to, it’s made this small town drastically better or vastly worse. But either way, the story’s the same: It’s a different place, even in the three years since I moved away for college. From Stanley, ND, a small town about 80 miles east, to Williston, a metropolis of oil rigs have cropped up. Signs marked “Rig 619” and so on sit at even the most seemingly inaccessible approaches branching from Highway 2 on the way to Williston from the east.

The run-down, dusty town with a population that, for years, could barely break 13,000 gradually exploded to its current population, estimated between 17,000 – 19,000. With the influx came a much-needed expansion in businesses and restaurants. A town boasting a Wal-Mart Supercenter and an Applebee’s as some of its biggest shopping and dining attractions, Williston had been in desperate need of “stuff to do.” After the last oil boom in the area peaked and busted in the 1980s, Williston was left with buildings, houses, and public works projects it couldn’t fund or fill. For this reason, the city’s being cautious. Business expansion has been slow to start, but it’s picking up speed — A Mexican grill is moving into the old Quizno’s, and a Menard’s is planned to be built west of town.

Bustling Main Street, Williston - "Dragging Main" is a favorite weekend activity of high schoolers

The slow-moving business expansion may be due, in part, to the focus on housing.  (The New York Times has a really interesting article on this, available at the link in the previous sentence.) The little town just couldn’t accommodate the population growth — Houses, apartments, and developments are going up in areas that I never thought I’d see as anything but open fields. But that’s a step in the right direction. The waiting list to rent an apartment in Williston is still about 8 months, leaving many people with few options. Hotels are completely booked every day of the week. Even throughout the harsh North Dakota winter, slews of new residents made mobile homes their semi-permanent homes. Many sported satellite dishes.

The campground near my parents' house is usually uninhabited during the winter, but was filled to capacity this January.

The people who live here are likely making more than many professionals in other areas of the country, but Williston just doesn’t have the space to house them.

Home sweet home

The area has tried to combat the problem by bringing in “man camps,” dorm-like housing options used to house athletes and workers at the  Olympics. Some man camps are located outside of Williston and Tioga, ND, a town of about 1,200 at the heart of the oil patch, 45 miles east of Williston. (I interned at the weekly newspaper in Tioga one summer — It was one experience I’d never want to relive, but that’s another story.)

The ATCO Lodge in Williston offers digital cable, wireless Internet, and includes all meals.

Before coming up with these solutions, Williston was battling new residents who decided to make themselves at home in one of the city’s local parks. Last summer, tents began appearing in a popular park for children, and they never went away. Christened “Tent City,” hundreds of residents crammed into the park and lived there through the summer. In early fall, the city finally ruled that the residents of Tent City had to find another place to live.

A family of three from Utah in search of higher-paying jobs lived in the Tent City among roughnecks.

Even with many potential solutions in the works, the housing problem has yet to be solved in Williston. “They” (whoever they are) say this oil boom is supposed to stick around for a minimum of 10 years. But, in the back of my mind, I wonder. The drastic changes the city is undergoing reminds me of a child forced to grow up too fast. Hopefully by the time the city catches up with it, the boom doesn’t bust again.